At the start of 1986, Paul Bracewell was a footballer with the world at his feet. Often likened in style to Howard Kendall, alongside whom he briefly played when at Stoke City in the late 1970s, the 23-year-old midfielder was already an England international, a league champion and European winner and had narrowly missed out on the PFA Young Footballer of the Year award in 1984.
On New Year’s Day 1986 Bracewell limped off during a 2-2 draw with Newcastle United. Although medical examinations initially proved inconclusive and he continued to play for the rest of the season, it was to mark the start of an injury nightmare from which he never fully recovered.
Exploratory surgery at the end of the campaign found a loose piece of bone in his ankle and he played no further part in Everton’s plans for two years. When he did eventually return a series of niggling injuries further hampered his chances. Finally, in 1989, he was sold to Sunderland and Everton lost one of their most promising talents.
Perhaps only the injustice of injury prevented Paul Bracewell from turning a career of great potential into greatness itself. After starting out in the Potteries, Howard Kendall paid Sunderland £250,000 for the Wirral-born midfielder in May 1984 and he made his debut at Wembley in the Charity Shield against Liverpool the following August. Everton won 1-0, and afterwards pundits pointed to the poise and control of Bracewell and his midfield partner, Peter Reid. As Everton swept all-comers over the 1984/85 season, theirs was a crucial component of the team’s success.
Reid had initially been sceptical about the partnership: ‘I remember thinking when we bought him that we might be too similar to be effective. We were both tacklers, getting the ball and giving it, engine room players. But it worked. We stayed solid in the middle and left Trevor Steven and Kevin Sheedy to get on with it wide.’ Bracewell was always more than just a ‘tackler’ though, and while lacking some pace and goal-scoring prowess, he compensated with accurate passing and great vision, often leading to strikes further up the field.
Reid also spoke of a ‘telepathic’ understanding between them. ‘If he went forward I was always in behind him, we had it worked out to a T,’ he said. ‘As a midfield partnership we played against all the top teams and I don’t remember us coming off second best to anyone.’
A member of the England under-21 team that won the European Championships in 1984, Bracewell gained full international recognition at the end of the 1984/85 season, winning the first of three England caps against West Germany. Before his New Year’s Day injury it looked as though he would join the England squad travelling to Mexico for the World Cup Finals.
Not only did he miss out on Mexico, where Everton players dominated Bobby Robson’s team, Bracewell also missed the chance to win a second championship medal when injury ruled him out of the entire 1986/87 campaign. When he did try to relaunch his Everton career in the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal the following season his comeback was cruelly halted by an ankle tendon injury, completely unconnected with the previous ailment. After a spell of rehabilitation at Lilleshall he returned to playing duties at the start of the 1988/89 season, initially with the reserves, and eventually re-established himself in the first team, playing in the FA Cup Final defeat to Liverpool in May.
This, however, proved to be the final sortie in Bracewell’s five-year-long Everton career: just as it had started with a Wembley derby, so it ended, and he was allowed to rejoin Sunderland that summer.
At Roker Park he helped lead Sunderland’s charge for promotion and within a year of his signing they had restored their top-flight status, although their spell in the First Division lasted just a year. In 1992 he captained Sunderland to the FA Cup Final, where they faced Liverpool, but for the third time in a cup final against them Bracewell came out a loser.
That summer he joined Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, helping them to the First Division Championship and promotion to the Premier League. He enjoyed two more productive seasons at St James’s Park before returning to Sunderland for a third spell, where he was reunited with Peter Reid, now the Black Cats manager, before playing out his career with Fulham.
In 1999 he was made Fulham manager, after Kevin Keegan was appointed England boss, but was sacked within a year after failing to bring the Cottagers promotion to the Premier League. He later had a brief, unproductive spell in charge of Halifax Town in 2000/01, and subsequently spent a couple of years as an FA coach. Bracewell is currently involved in sports marketing.